« PreviousContinue »
not easy, nor possible, but with more skilful and at. tentive help than can be commonly obtained.' Milton, however, was not without examples. We should suppose, that a lawyer, above all men, ought to have eyes; yet the house of Caius Drusus was always filled with clients; who, says Cicero, when they could not see their own way in their affairs, were willing to avail themselves of a blind guide. Cnius Aufidius discharged the office of prætor, delivered speeches in the senate, and wrote a Grecian history, after he had lost his sight. "Videbat in litteris,' says Cicero. Blind Diodatus, the stoic, resided many years at Cicero's house; and, what is scarcely credible, not only devoted himself to philosophy with more eagerness than ever, played upon the Pythagorian fiddle, and read books day and night,--but, what seems to be absolutely impracticable without eyes, superintended a school of geometry, and would direct his pupils, by words, whence, whither, and how to draw their lines.*
But, whatever might have been Milton's difficulties in compiling a dictionary or a history, it cannot be pretended, that the loss of sight was a serious impediment to the composition of an epic poem. Homer, we are told, was blind. But, when we say this, to use once more the language of Cicero, we look at his picture, and not at his poetry. What region, asks the delighted philosopher, what coast, what corner of Greece, what species of form, what battle, what parade, what contest of oars, what mction of man or of beast, has he not so painted, that, though he may not have seen it himself, he forces his readers to see it?t When Milton commenced Paradise Lost,-how he first conceived the idea, and what was the original celebrity of the poem, are three questions, which his biographers still strive to illustrate, and continue to discuss.
* Tusc. Quæst. I. v. 838, et seq.
+ Id. ibid.
There is some reason to doubt the saying of Dr. Johnson, that he was long choosing, and began late. Even in a college exercise, written in his 19th year, he expresses his hopes of soaring to the
door of heaven, and looking in to see the blissful deities;'* and it is worth the curious reader's attention,' says Mr. Thyer, one of his commentators,
to observe how much Paradise Lost corresponds with this prophetic wish. Again, Milton tells Diodati, who had asked him what he was about at his father's, 6 ATERO Quw, et volitare meditor.' In his first religious treatise, of Reformation, he says, 'some one may, perhaps, be heard singing hymns and hallelujas in new and lofty measures; nor does he forget to inform the public, in 1642, that, 'ever since he could conceive himself any thing worth to his country, the intention had lived within him, to celebrate in glorious and lofty hymns the throne and equipage of God's almightiness, and what he works, and what he suffers to be wrought, with high providence in his church; to sing-whatsoever in religion is holy and sublime, in virtue amiable or grave, whatsoever hath passion or admiration of that, which is
* Yet I had rather, if I were to choose,
Milton once had a design, it is well known to make prince Arther the subject of an epic poem. Mr. Warton thinks, that the advice of Manso, the friend of Tasso, first put him upon this de sign; and Mr. Hayley adds, that the conjecture is not a little strengthened by the fact, that, in Tasso's discourses on epic poetry, Arthur is often recommended as a good hero for a poem. Hayl. p. 254. It was in the ode to Manso, that this design first showed itself; and the above vacation exercise is a proof, that he had long before conceived a different idea.
called fortune from without, or the wily subtilties and refluxes of man's thoughts from within; all these things with a solid and tractable smoothness to point out and describe, teaching over the whole book of sanctity and virtue, through all the instances of example, with such delight, to those especially of soft and delicious temper, who will not so much as look upon truth herself, unless they see her elegantly drest; that whereas the pathes of honesty and good life appear now rugged and difficult, though they be indeed easy and pleasant, they will then appear to all men both easy and pleasant, though they were rugged and difficult indeed.'*
He then proceeds to say, that this thing can only be done by devout prayer to that eternal Spirit, who can enrich with all utterance and knowledge, and sends out his seraphim with the hallowed fire of his altar to touch and purify the lips of whom he pleases.'t Here we have nearly the argument and invocation of Paradise Lost; and perhaps it is not unworthy of notice, too, that, in speaking of the difficulties, which attend such an undertaking, he uses almost the same language in this prose trea. tise, and in the poem. He says, in the former, that he shall give no certain account of what the mind at home, in the spacious circuits of her musing, hath liberty to propose to herself, though of highest hope and hardest attempting;' and he opens the third book of Paradise Lost, with telling us, that he had been taught by the heavenly muse to venture' upon the flight of the foregoing books, though hard and rare.' So, he talks, in the treatise, of be. ing 'fed with cheerful and confident thoughts;' and, again, in the introduction to the third book of the poem, he 'feeds on thoughts, which move har. monious numbers.' But he has almost told us himself, in so many words, that he began his great epic
* Reas, of Church Gov. Introd. B.II.
+ Id bid.
poem before he became a politician; for, after mentioning, as above, what he had been so long determined to do, he adds, that it was with small willingness that he endured to interrupt the pursuit of no less hopes than these, to embark in a troubled sea of noise and hoarse disputes.* He would hardly talk of interrupting a pursuit, which had not yet been commenced.
It is remarkable, that all the shorter poems of his early life, whatever may be the occasion, which called them forth,-are constantly burthened with Phæbus, nightly visitations, Homer, and Virgil ; and, in one place particularly, he seems to intimate pretty broadly, that he was about to do what would raise him above both the latter poets. In speaking of what he calls his exile from Cambridge, he says, among other things, that Ovid had suffered no greater calamities than his banishment to Tomas ! Every one would not then have been obliged to yield to Homer; nor, conquered Maro! would the first praise be still given to thee!'t That is to say, Milton himself is Ovid in exile ; and, if he does not, like Ovid, meet with any heavier misfortunes, he ghall do that which those misfortunes prevented Ovid from doing. One is the rather tempted to put this construction upon the words, because the exe
0, utinam vates nunquam graviora tulisset
Ille Tomitano flebilis exul agro;
Neve foret victo laus tibi prima, Maro. We may observe here. that, when Milton uses the word exul, he does not mean an outcast, -any more than his use of the word patronus, for a modern lawyer, conveys all the ideas collected with the original signification of that word:
Sive decennali fecundus lite patronus
Detonat inculto barbara verba foro.
cution of the sanguine bard at last so completely justified his menaces. He was not alone, however, even at the early period we now speak of, in thinking his own poetical powers superior to those of all his epic predecessors; and it is somewhat remarkable, that, although he had not yet published any thing, which pretended to be a heroic poem, he was uniformly classed, by the Italians, with Homer, Virgil, and Tasso. Selvaggi tells him, for instance, that he is equal to either of the two former; and Salselli says, he is superior to all three.* We can hardly suppose, that such praise was bestowed upon Milton's mask or lyrics; and we were struck with an expression of Dr. Johnson, that'he produced his compositions to the Italians. We have known instances, in which the doctor has followed the language of a predecessor, without seeming to care about its precise import; and, though in thus using the word produce, he undoubtedly alluded himself to the works of Milton, which had already been published, we suspect, the person, from whom he copied the expression, intended it of such as were still in manuscript. It is idle to suppose, that the Italians knew nothing of his printed poems until be showed them with his own hands; or that Milton would think of travelling over Europe, with an intention to exhibit his own former productions, as the credentials of his respectability. They appear. ed long before his departure; and he was a rare example of modesty, if he thought, that they had not
* Gracia Mæonidem, jactet sibi Roma Maronem,
Cede, Males; cedat depressa Mincius urna;